Tom Phillips* – The Guardian
Protests, scandals, corruption claims, allegations of mafia links … ‘It’s the worst start to a presidency’ in decades, says pollster
Brazil was just weeks from last year’s electoral earthquake when rock legend Lobão sat down outside his backyard studio, fired up his smartphone and announced he was backing the far-right frontrunner.
On a recent afternoon, however, the gravel-voiced singer sank into a chair on the same terrace and admitted to a severe case of buyer’s remorse.
“It’s a marmalade of madness,” Lobão grumbled of Bolsonaro’s crisis-packed opening act in power which has been plagued by factional struggles, mass protests, claims of mafia ties and corruption involving his family, a cocaine smuggling scandal involving a presidential plane and damaging revelations involving his celebrity justice minister, Sérgio Moro.
Not to mention a series of bizarre gaffes – including sharing a pornographic video with his 3.4 million Twitter followers – that have led some to question whether Bolsonaro will even see out his four-year term.
“Not even Syd Barrett ever had such a bad trip,” Lobão said.
Six months after Bolsonaro took office, Lobão, 61, has emerged as one of the rightwing populist’s most ferocious critics, assailing his administration in a succession of searing media appearances.
And he is not alone in his dismay.
Opinion polls show Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have plunged since his 1 January inauguration with 32% of Brazilians now considering his government bad or awful compared with 11% when he took power.
More than half of Brazil now says it does not trust the president.
“It is the worst start to a presidency since the return of democracy [in 1990],” said Mauro Paulino, the director of Datafolha, one of Brazil’s top pollsters. “A lot would depend on the opponent … but if there was another election today, I don’t think he would be re-elected.”
Notorious for his bellicose, bile-filled rhetoric and contempt for human rights, Bolsonaro has long been a hate figure for Brazil’s left.
But a growing number of conservative voices are also now questioning his presidency.
“His popularity is falling because people feel baffled by the things he is doing and saying,” said Eliane Cantanhêde, a columnist for the conservative Estado de São Paulo newspaper, another of Bolsonaro’s most trenchant critics.
He accused hostile lefty journalists of unfairly portraying Brazil’s president as a grouch, an ogre and “a 2019 Hitler who wants to kill homosexuals”.
But what mark would Val give Bolsonaro’s first six months in power?
“Four and a half out of 10,” the politician replied. “It’s bad.”
Val’s primary gripe was the excessive influence of the ideological wing of Bolsonaro’s administration – led by an eccentric US-based polemicist called Olavo de Carvalho – and its obsession with waging irrelevant ideological battles instead of promoting key reforms.
He was also perplexed that control of presidential communications had been entrusted to the president’s “most hot-headed son”, Carlos Bolsonaro, who has launched a succession of social media attacks on perceived enemies in his father’s administration and on Brazil’s right.
The “antics” of such figures risked enabling a leftwing comeback, Val warned.
“If the country ends up with a negative impression of the right and goes back to voting for the left, then I think we’ll be going down a very dangerous path.”
Bolsonaro still enjoys considerable support, as demonstrated by two recent pro-government rallies. According to polls, 32% of Brazilians believe their leader is on the right track, with supporters crediting Bolsonaro for a fall in the number of homicides and a recently struck trade deal between the EU and the South American trade bloc to which Brazil belongs.
“Overall, I believe things are going really well,” said Emerson Medeiros, a 44-year-old bank executive, praising what he saw as Bolsonaro’s commitment to pension reform and fighting corruption.
On the night of Bolsonaro’s victory Medeiros and his wife, Cláudia, joined huge celebrations in São Paulo, pronouncing their new leader the “saviour of the nation”.
Six months into Bolsonaro’s presidency, “I still feel as excited as I did that day,” enthused Cláudia, 44. “I really believe.”
The couple denied being blind followers of the president, or Bolsominions as they are known in Brazil.
“I’m not that mad person who will eternally adulate him if he screws up or if it all goes wrong with his sons and they really are corrupt,” Cláudia said, in reference to suspicions of corruption swirling around Bolsonaro’s eldest son, the senator Flávio Bolsonaro.
They also expressed unease at Bolsonaro’s public blunders – including his recent insinuation that sex tourists were welcome in Brazil as long as they were not gay.
“But I still have the feeling things are moving in a good direction,” Emerson added. “The media focuses too much on the bad things and never highlights the good.”
Edson Salomão, a founder of the Direita São Paulo (Rightwing São Paulo) group, gave Bolsonaro an even sunnier report card, though he struggled, when asked, to list the main achievements of his first six months in office.
“I’m trying to remember all of them now. Let me just have a look here,” Salomão floundered, reaching for his smartphone. “There are so many.”
Salomão spurned Lobão’s criticisms as the ramblings of an irrelevant has-been.
“There are some voices I prefer not to hear – and Lobão’s is one of them,” he laughed. “I think he’s good at making music – he should stick to that.”
But Lobão, whose real name is João Luiz Woerdenbag Filho, was unrepentant about speaking out, saying he could no longer bear to be associated with the zealots around Bolsonaro.
“I absolutely cannot stand shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of fanatics, villains, loons … flat-Earthers,” he complained.
“We are in the lap of an absolutely troglodyte and retrograde right … [and] this grotesque and caricatured right will automatically, naturally pave the way for the return of the left.”
Lobão said he saw some redeeming features to Bolsonaro’s administration, chiefly the pragmatic vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, and finance minister, Paulo Guedes – “a cool guy” he hoped could haul Brazil’s economy out of the “bog”.
Mostly, though, he felt “dread” at its reactionary tack and Bolsonaro’s allegiance to “utterly tacky” hardline televangelists.
In his pre-election declaration, Lobão admitted having no idea where a Bolsonaro government might lead. “Is it an adventure? Yes, it is an adventure. I don’t know what will happen.”
Ten months on the bearded rocker seemed even less sure.
“Brazil is a crazy spaceship. So anything could happen – and we are inside it,” Lobão riffed. “That is the problem.”
*Tom Phillips is the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent